Following its recent report on the health of America seminaries - which were found to be in relatively good condition - the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Con- secrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, headed by Cardinal Franc Rodé, is embarking on a comprehensive study of the more than 400 congregations of religious women in the United States.
The visitation will only assess those religious who engage in apostolic or active work, and will not involve contemplative communities.
In its 22 December 2008 decree authorising this first-ever visitation, the Vatican said the study was being undertaken 'to look into the quality of the life' of the members of American religious institutes.
Responding to the Vatican announcement, the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious announced, 'We hope that the results of the apostolic visitation will demonstrate the vitality and depth of the life and service of women religious in the United States.'
However, in his analysis of the visitation's significance, experienced Catholic editor Philip Lawler commented, 'Let's be honest: A report concentrating on the 'vitality' of women's religious orders in the US today would be a work of fiction. In the past 40 years the Church in America has seen a disastrous fall in the number of women religious, combined with a frightening degree of dissidence and disorientation among the members of what were once the country's largest religious orders.'
The official web site of the apostolic visitation acknowledged the above problems, if in gentler language. 'Like other vocations in the Church, religious life has passed through challenging times.' But that mild phrase, 'challenging times,' says Lawler, is linked to a series of charts that illustrate the problem in hard, cold figures.
The lines of the graphs are pitched steeply downward. The number of nuns in the US today stands at under 80,000: less than half of the number serving the Church in 1965. The median age of the surviving nuns is still climbing, threatening the complete disappearance of some entire religious orders.
What the numbers do not say, but observant American Catholics know, says Lawler, is that some of the largest religious orders that once staffed parochial schools and administered Catholic hospitals have now surrendered their traditional roles, instead taking up fashionable political causes. More than a few nuns have been caught up in feminism and eco-spirituality, a not-uncommon phenomenon in Australia.
Is there any reason for optimism for the future of women's religious orders in the US? As the apostolic visitation was announced, a spokesman indicated that there was. Sister Eva-Marie Ackermann said: 'We hope to discover and share the vibrancy and purpose that continue to accomplish so much, [and] as well to understand the obstacles and challenges.'
The 'obstacles and challenges', Lawler notes, are easy to understand. But where can that 'vibrancy and purpose' be found? That statement demands a closer look.
Sister Ackermann is not saying that 'vibrancy and purpose' characterise all of America's religious orders. The apostolic visitation is designed to 'discover' those qualities, and 'share' them - that is, to find healthy religious communities, analyse their strengths, and propose them as models for emulation.
Last September, during a conference on religious life held at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, the Prefect of the Congregation for Religious offered a few important insights into the thinking that prompted the Vatican to begin this investigation of American religious life: 'In the last 40 years the Church has undergone one of her greatest crises of all times.' The impact of that crisis on religious life in Europe has been devastating, he observed. But in the US, 'Since the Second Vatican Council, more than a hundred new religious communities have sprung up in this fertile soil.'
Lawler observes, 'The landscape is not altogether barren, then; there are clusters of promising growth. New communities have appeared, typically embracing traditional models, and attracting many young women. While many older religious communities appear to be in their death throes, the cardinal reported, there are younger ones which 'are thriving and whose individual statistics are the reverse of the general trends.'
Pockets of vibrancy
These are the pockets of 'vibrancy and purpose' that the apostolic visitation might identify. Cardinal Rodé, in his Stonehill speech, contrasted them with two other sorts of religious communities. There are some, he said, that 'have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community.' Others, still worse, 'have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to 'stay' in the Church physically.'
The visitation process is headed by Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, who was appointed by Cardinal Rodé. Mother Clare is the superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a group of sisters that is based in Rome but has 135 sisters in the US.
Mother Clare estimates the project will take about two years to finish, and says that upon completion she will submit a confidential report to Cardinal Rodé. There are no plans to publish the findings.
With acknowledgement to Catholic World News.